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Storm clouds gathered over the Alps this week.
In Davos, Switzerland, the 53rd annual World Economic Forum (WEF) was held under the theme "Cooperation in a Fragmented World," reflecting a world "at a critical inflection point" where "the twin triggers" of COVID and Ukraine "rattled an already brittle global system."
Sclerotic economies, continued the WEF, are "navigating headwinds from rising food and energy prices" amid "heightened geo-economic fragmentation, financial sector vulnerabilities, including stretched asset prices and high debt levels, and a climate crisis spinning out of control, which could magnify any growth slowdown, particularly in emerging markets."
"Unless these systemic and interconnected risks are addressed," the WEF concluded, "the promise of a 'decade of action' may become a decade of uncertainty and fragility."
Meanwhile, meteorological storm clouds over many Alpine ski resorts were just as likely to bring rain, not snow — and it's often been too warm to even make the artificial stuff, according to Monday's New York Times article "In the Alps, Lamenting the End of Endless Snow: Climate Crisis Strips Mountain Slopes, Threatening Regional Industry and Identity."
Skiing, a Swiss resort director told the Times (notably, in the past tense), "was something like the people's sport."
Indeed, skiers — including Americans like Mikaela Shiffrin, who may break Lindsey Vonn's World Cup win-record this weekend — are rock stars in Alpine nations, including legends like Franz Klammer, the Austrian downhiller whose gutty run in downhill at the 1976 Innsbruck Games was used to depict "the thrill of victory" in ABC's iconic "Wide World of Sports" opening montage.
And yet today Innsbruck and other Olympic-caliber Alpine sites may not have reliable enough snow to host a future Winter Games. In fact, according to data compiled by the Economist, Europe's "freakish winter" saw eight nations record their warmest-ever January day on New Year's Day this year.
"The bottom line is climate change is going to change the geography of where we can host the Games reliably in the future," said Daniel Scott, a University of Waterloo professor of climate and society who has advised the International Olympic Committee on how warming winters will wither site-selection options. Speaking from Canada, Scott said that "the Alps was actually one of the more vulnerable parts of the world" and that some of the traditional European venues that may not work for future Games "are what we consider winter sports powerhouses."
Scott's scholarship is in climate science, not political science. But he sees how the fragmentation reflected in Davos is refracted back into inaction on global warming, the threat imperiling the very nature of Alpine resorts — and society.
Climate change "is the world's greatest common property challenge; the United States can't solve it by itself, China can't, no individual player or even small group of countries can tackle this by themselves," Scott said. "Even if you're fragmented geopolitically into the West, Russia, China — spheres of influence — and others developing like the global south, all kinds of different countries" need to be part of the solution.
And yet this very fragmentation is increasingly defining the world — and the World Economic Forum.
"Zero-Sum: The destructive logic that threatens globalization," read the title of this week's WEF-timed cover story in the Economist (reprinted on this page Jan. 15). Since 1945, the magazine stated, "the world economy has run according to a system of rules and norms underwritten by America. This brought about unprecedented economic integration that boosted growth, lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and helped the West prevail over Soviet Russia in the Cold War. Today that system is in peril. Countries are racing to subsidize green energy, lure manufacturing away from friend and foe alike and restrict the flow of goods and capital. Mutual benefit is out and national gain is in. An era of zero-sum thinking has begun."
The magazine lists and laments examples, leading with one from the country it credited with undergirding globalism: the U.S. Specifically, it calls out the made-in-America provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, which it says has "set off a dangerous spiral into protectionism worldwide." Some of that grumbling has already been heard in quiet conversations between Washington and Western capitals. And there were echoes in Davos about the impact on internationalism that may make solving transnational challenges like climate change even more daunting.
As the Economist framed it: "A final worry is that the more economic conflict proliferates, the harder it becomes to solve problems that demand global collaboration. … If countries cannot cooperate to tackle some problems, these will become impossible to fix and the world will suffer accordingly."
The world, according to Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk and research consultancy, is already in a "geopolitical recession." There's global foreboding about an economic one, too. And yet Bremmer, speaking from the WEF, said in an interview that the Davos vibe is "moderately optimistic, compared to what you see in the headlines on the state of the global economy."
And yet "on the geopolitical side there is enormous concern," he said, with "uncertainty and recognition that nobody has the tools to respond to it. And that is most particularly true in terms of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and where the war is heading. But it's also true more broadly as well. This polarization that we're seeing, the idea that the World Economic Forum is saying that fragmentation is their primary concern, that's exactly the opposite of what the West has been trying to accomplish for all these years."
What the West, and the world, needs to accomplish on climate change is ecologically, economically, and geopolitically essential. "Everyone understands it, everyone is invested in it," Bremmer said. "And yet the responses are overwhelmingly national, they're at the local, sovereign level." While the challenge is global, he added, "you don't actually have a global response. How can you talk about globalization — it's the most obvious global challenge out there — that is only being met with primarily a national response?"
Klammer's "thrill-of-victory" performance perfectly captured Alpine identity, but it wasn't the only — or even the most memorable — "Wide World of Sports" ski scene. That moment belonged to Vinko Bogataj, a ski jumper from Yugoslavia competing in West Germany (two country constructs from a Cold-War era that's devolved to today's hot war over Ukraine).
Bogataj was as courageous as Klammer but not as successful, and his wicked wipeout became the coda to the thrill of victory: "The agony of defeat." It's an outcome the Alps, let alone the world, cannot afford regarding the global cohesion needed on climate change.